Given we arrived in Dunedin only in time for some room service, a bath and then bed, we decided to leave any sightseeing until the next day. We heard the Otago Peninsula was where the action was at, so we set off for a look before heading to Lake Tekapo via the Waitaki Valley. I read in the Lonely Planet guide it was little-travelled, but contained ancient rock paintings and 25-million-year-old fossils. I was sold. I’ll travel you, Waitaki Valley!
First up on our journey along the peninsula though was Larnach Castle. Built between 1871 and 1887, it is a gorgeous Gothic mansion filled with amazing antique furnishings. The views are incredible as it is situated on the highest point of the peninsula, and the gardens are apparently wonderful, but the weather wasn’t very good and we had to skip that part. I was very sad about that! But the castle itself was so much fun to poke about in. Pity I couldn’t take any photographs, but you’ll just have to go and see for yourself 🙂
Could you imagine this being your front door? Living in a random castle in a country where there are no other castles at all?! It is small, as far as castles go, but it has a music room and a conservatory, a library, formal dining room and a parlour for the ladies. Oh and a gun room and various other bits and pieces! William Larnach built it for his family and spared absolutely no expense whatsoever – marble imported from Italy, slate from Wales, floor tiles from England, wood from Australia, and glass from France. He also imported craftsmen from Europe, who spent 12 YEARS embellishing the interior. The dining room ceiling in particular is intricately carved and took many years of people doing it by hand. There were 46 servants to do everyone’s bidding and William built his favourite daughter a ballroom for her 21st birthday. Then he committed suicide in New Zealand Parliament, where he was a member.
The view from the tower is pretty remarkable, turquoise lakes wherever you look and the most wonderful mountains and greenery. I am not afraid to admit right here the incredibly narrow stone spiral steps leading from the third floor to the tower had me terrifed. I practically crawled up them with my heart in my throat and about seven steps in I thought I probably shouldn’t continue. I made it, took some photos, and then realised I had to get back down. there are no hand rails, just those crazy steps that barely fit a foot and a baby on my back skewing my centre of balance. I inched my way back down, breathing slowly and trying not to panic. I don’t often get wigged out like that, but those steps are not for the faint-hearted!
The views driving back down the peninsula are pretty spectacular. Blue lake as far as the eye can see, and rolling hills in the background. The colour of the water is phenomenal.
The road itself, however, is nail-biting. I will admit right here and now there were parts where I just had to close my eyes or look away.
NO GUARDRAILS, PEOPLE! No guardrails. Just twisty, turny roads and nothing stopping you driving straight off into the drink. And this road is long. Sometimes I’d look out my window and I couldn’t even see anything between me and water.
Once safely back in the main part of town, we went to a supermarket and I picked up a few more things to see us through the drive as we would be going through lunch and dinner. After a few wrong turns we made our way out of town and on to Oamaru, stopping at the Moeraki Boulders along the way.
These things are amazing – septarian concretions created by the cementation of Paleocene mudstone of the Moeraki Formation. In English? 55-65-million-year-old mud hardened into spheres and was then uncovered eventually due to coastal erosion. The septaria are cracks that nobody can confidently explain the purpose of. It’s pretty interesting to not only see these giant shapes dotted along the flat beach, but also to peek inside the ones that burst open thousands of years ago.
Because neither my husband or eldest daughter can keep themselves away from bodies of water, we eventually looked out to sea (and I dipped a finger in to see how chilly the water was) and were surprised to find dolphins frolicking incredibly close to shore. We were pretty excited, as we’d missed many of the cool wildlife opportunities in Dunedin. The dolphins were having a whale of a time.
We did a few laps of the historic district once we got to Oamaru, and took a few photos of the buildings. I love how much history is preserved on the South Island! We didn’t stay long, though.
At Oamaru we took the turnoff to SH1 and headed toward Oamarama. We followed the SH83 almost to Duntroon, and detoured left onto Dansey’s Pass. We absolutely missed the rock paintings under a gigantic limestone overhang which were immediately on our left, and ended up taking the turnoff to Elephant Rocks. Huge limestone boulders sculpted by wind, rain and rivers jut out of perfectly green paddocks and do look a whole lot like huge, majestic, grey elephants. They were used as the landscape of Aslan’s camp in the Narnia film in 2005.
But first, you gotta get through the sheep. (We called them Timmys, thanks to the kiddo TV show Timmy Time. Abby thought it was hilarious).
they are pretty incredible, but we didn’t venture far in. I would have liked to, but it was nearing 6pm by this stage and we still had a long way to go. On the way back to the SH83 we spotted the Maraewhenua Maori rock painting site and pulled over so I could run up and have a look.
Back on our trail we stopped off at Vanished World, which we thought would be closed (it was nearing 6pm) but we were lucky enough to be able to pop in and see and touch the wonderful fossils on display. Here we found out that the limestone outcrops we’d seen along the drive were once yellow-white sand and made up of fossil fragments. Where we were standing was once the sea floor (quite amazing when you consider how far inland we were), 24-26 million years before. The limestone had been the final resting place for many shellfish, sharks, fish, penguins, whales and dolphins, many of which we got to see up close in the Vanished World centre. I’ve seen amazing fossils and bones before (particularly of dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York), but I’ve never in my life been able to touch one! We all got to feel the 45-million-year-old fossil of a shark-toothed dolphin native to the area, which was such an incredible experience. We also got to fossick for actual fossils embedded in limestone, a room full of small limestone pieces holding ancient treasures was ours to pick over and delicately chip away at until we unearthed our prize. I found an ancient shell and I couldn’t believe we were actually allowed to sit there and have a go ourselves and that it wasn’t all plaster casts of things! Safe to say I was pretty impressed, and we learned a lot, particularly of the geological makeup of New Zealand (which is so unique and really rather incredible).
Sadly we made our way out and headed on to Lake Tekapo. It was so nice to be driving in the direction of the mountains again, and we got to see the sun set as we neared the snowy peak of Mount Cook. It was spectacular, and rather hard to believe that the next day was our last exploring this wonderful country.
More photos here.
Day Six is here.
*NB this was a self-funded trip.